It is finally here!
Baseball season! The Super Bowl is finished and while I am sure he’ll have fun, I don’t want to watch Eli visit Disney World. No, rather, I will ignore all BCS mumbo jumbo and focus on a sport that already has a playoff. Baseball.
Pitchers and catchers are reporting soon in the bigs, but here on the collegiate level we have been practicing for weeks.
Tennessee takes on Northern Illinois on the 17th. Can there be a better Valentine’s Day gift? Let’s look at the two teams head-to-head.
For Tennessee, it is a fresh start. The past is over, they have gargled Scope and the bad Raleigh-taste is out of their mouths. Insert Dave Serrano. He brings a great pedigree to UT. He comes from out west, California to be exact, where baseball is different, but still very important. His return to Knoxville, where he helped coach UT greats like R.A. Dickey and Todd Helton, comes after success at CS Fullerton and UC Irvine. College World Series success, that is. Fans, players and coaches are a buzz for this season on Rocky Top.
For Northern Illinois, it is almost the opposite. Their coach, Ed Mathey, is entering his 10th year. He is the winningest coach in their history and holds the top-4 single season wins totals in the school’s baseball history. While stability is not an issue, the Huskies would like to see some change. Specifically, in starting the season. They started last year 0-10. However, they turned it around and finished the season going 30-17. Put the two together and you have an average 30-27 record, but, if you fix your slow start, this team is competing at the top of the conference.
Tennessee is looking for anyone to step up on the offensive side of things. Gone are the speed demons Khayyan Norfork and Andrew Toles. Gone too are great hitters Matt Duffy and Josh Liles. This group made up 48% of the runs scored, 51.9% of the RBIs and 75.6% of the steals last year. That leaves a lot of questions and few answers. One of the answers is Zach Osborne. The senior shortstop hit .330 last season in 50 games. He had 27 runs and 19 RBIs, but he rarely struck out. In fact he only left swinging 17 times in 176 at-bats. That is a 90.3% contact rate. Which means that he puts the ball in play. If he can keep that up and get on base, look for Ethan Bennett and Chris Morgan to help him score. Bennett hit 8 HRs last year as a freshman and looks to avoid a sophomore slump. And Morgan hit .278, the highest average for a returning player with significant playing time not named Osborne.
The pitching lacks a certain luster as well, unfortunately. Junior Nick Blount is the most experienced starter returning. The 6’6″ righty started only 6 games and managed a 1-5 record. The bullpen has some returning depth with names like Zack Godley (28 appearances), Drew Steckenrider (19), Nick Williams (23) and Dalton Saberhagen (13) all return looking to improve on a rough 2011 season.
For Northern Illinois, they have some familiar faces coming back. Senior shortstop Alex Jones hit .352 last season for the Huskies. He led the team in average as well as RBIs (47) and triples (6). He was a quarterfinalist for the Brooks Wallace Shortstop of the Year Award. They also return senior third-baseman Troy White, who hit .304, and junior outfielder Jamison Wells, who hit .321 and led the team in doubles (16) and steals (27).
They return experienced pitching as well. Senior righty Tony Manville went 9-1 in 10 starts (21 total appearances) last year, and fellow senior Tom Barry, a lefty, made 11 starts (14 appearances) going 5-5, both had an ERA of 3.79. As far as the bullpen goes, the Huskies have a shutdown guy. Kyle Glancy, a senior righty, made 24 appearances last season. He collected this resume: 1-0, 12 saves, 2.86 ERA, 23 Ks in 28.1 innings. And probably most important for a reliever, he never gave up a home run.
What to expect
The Huskies are going to want to make a point. They remember dropping their first 10 games and will look to come out much stronger. However, Tennessee is a talented team. They won games before they got to the SEC schedule. But, the question remains as to how well they will adapt to Dave Serrano’s system.
I expect UT to take 2 out of 3 from the Huskies. They have home-field advantage, and I really think Serrano is a great coach. Tennessee has talent and he can coach talent. I give the Huskies a game because they are a veteran team. They have more answers than questions heading into the season.
However, don’t take my word as law. Come out on Friday and watch the game! It starts at 4 p.m. and should be a good indicator as to what to expect from the Vols this season. Get excited everybody, baseball season has finally come!